About the book
About the Author
Table of contents
attorney fay stender
documentary film
speaker’s sheet
Upcoming Events
Photo © 2012 Ilka Hartmann

Attorney Fay Stender

Each year California Women Lawyers bestows a Fay Stender Award, named for one of its founders who dedicated her life to championing unpopular causes.  Fay Abrahams grew up in Berkeley as the older of two daughters of a prominent chemist in the asbestos industry. Born with perfect pitch, she was raised to become a concert pianist and debuted at fourteen with the San Francisco Symphony. Always headstrong, she rebelled shortly afterward and insisted on going to Berkeley High School instead of the girls’ private school which left her isolated every afternoon practicing the piano. Fay became radicalized at Reed College in Oregon in the early fifties, before transferring to U.C. Berkeley. She decided to go to law school because she thought lawyers had the opportunity “to change things.”  She met her future husband, Marvin Stender, in law school at the University of Chicago during the McCarthy Era, where their favorite professor worked on the appeal of a co-defendant in the world famous Rosenberg espionage trial.  The couple settled in the Bay Area.  Jobs for women lawyers were almost non-existent. Fay worked for a black solo practitioner who wound up disbarred for trying to bribe witnesses. She then landed a job for a conservative California Supreme Court Justice, only to quit in disgust at two discoveries:  she was paid less than a simultaneously hired male clerk, and the justice she worked for despised inter-racial marriage (a right Fay championed in her spare time). Her boss had vehemently dissented against California’s first-in-the-nation decision voiding an anti-miscegenation law.

Fay turned excitedly to life as a new mother and devoted her enormous energy to a fledgling women’s group promoting family rights, including getting hospitals to allow fathers in the delivery room and creating a hotline for new mothers wishing to  breast feed, despite doctors who counseled modern mothers to rely exclusively on the bottle. Yet soon Fay chafed at being a stay-at-home mother amid the increasingly Progressive politics of the Bay Area. Through the Lawyers’ Guild, she and Marvin already knew several prominent Leftist criminal defense attorneys, including Charles Garry and Barney Dreyfus, who had made names for themselves establishing California’s diminished capacity defense to murder as well as representing accused Communists.  Fay secured a part-time job with their firm (their first female associate)  shortly after Garry made national headlines by getting a student acquitted of all charges from the “Black Friday” protests of a May 1960 House Un-American Activities Committee hearing at San Francisco’s City Hall—the event that launched  the ‘60s protest era. Through Friends of SNCC, the Stenders helped fund-raise for civil rights activists in the South and each spent a week in Mississippi during 1964’s Freedom Summer.  That winter, Fay helped arrange bail for her friend Mario Savio and hundreds of others arrested for a Berkeley campus sit-in that launched the Free Speech Movement.  In August 1965, Fay and Marvin co-founded with friends an ambitious “Council for Justice” to provide lawyers for Viet Nam War draft resisters and for Cesar Chavez as he organized the United Farm Workers. Activists often gathered at the Stenders’ Berkeley home where Fay and Marvin’s two young children wandered in and out of their political potlucks and fund-raisers.

By the fall of 1967, Fay began working full-time. Still, at 35, she despaired of ever becoming a partner and yearned to make a bigger impact. Then Garry invited her to join him interviewing his newest high profile client, Huey Newton, at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, where Newton was recovering from a stomach wound.  At first sight of the Black Panther Minister of Defense surrounded by police guards, Fay knew this was the cause she had been waiting for.  Since the fall of 1966, the Panthers had been shadowing Oakland police patrols in black neighborhoods. Newton was now accused of killing one police officer and wounding another in an early morning shootout. Faye sat second chair to Charley Garry at Newton’s 1968 murder trial and took over as lead counsel on appeal, all the while orchestrating Movement support to “Free Huey.”   In early 1970, Fay also took on the defense of Soledad inmate George Jackson, who was accused with two other prisoners of murdering a guard. Between the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee and the “Free Huey” campaign Fay had her hands full. By July of 1970, with two amazing successes for black revolutionaries under her belt, Fay became the most sought after Movement lawyer in the country and devoted herself to national prison reform. Yet, in three years time she would forsake prison law and the championing of black militants and before the decade's end she would be dead. Shot in 1979 by a follower of George Jackson, she survived only long enough to appear as the star witness for the prosecution and then take her own life.